MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – In a season full of tough games and gritty efforts, John Tauer and the St. Thomas basketball team had a little bit of fun earlier this week.

That’s easy to do when you win your eighth straight regular season conference title and secure a No. 1 seed for the MIAC Playoffs. That’s exactly what the Tommies did Monday after a 75-64 win over Bethel. St. Thomas is now 22-1 overall, 17-1 in the MIAC with two conference games left and moved back up to No. 1 in the Division III national polls.

Since losing at Concordia-Moorhead, the Tommies have won six straight games, three on the road, and came out of a tough stretch against Augsburg, Bethel and Gustavus all with victories.

“We definitely acknowledged it,” Tauer said of the MIAC title. The eighth straight title sets a 90-plus year record in the conference for consecutive conference titles. “I told the guys we just did something that no other team has ever done. You don’t take conference championships for granted because you work incredibly hard to get them. We’ve now had four straight games that have set us up really well for the playoffs.”

That’s because the Tommies’ margin of victory has gone down quite a bit as games around the MIAC get more meaningful with playoff implications at stake. Wednesday night’s 68-63 win at Gustavus was their first single-digit win of the MIAC season, but games have been much closer as of late.

Tommy Hannon scored 18 points and had eight rebounds in last Saturday’s 66-56 win at Augsburg that clinched a playoff berth for St. Thomas. The depth the Tommies have showcased all year was evident in their win over Bethel on Monday that clinched the regular season title. Hannon had 15 points, Noah Kaiser had 14 points and Marcus Alipate had 13 points.

Will DeBerg had 19 points in their win at Gustavus on Wednesday where they trailed 33-27 at the half.  DeBerg scored 17 of his 19 in the second half for St. Thomas in the win.

“Will scored 17 points in a five-and-a-half minute span. He absolutely caught fire, and it got all the guys on our bench fired up,” Tauer said. “When a guy gets hot, you get him the ball.”

It’s an unusual year in the MIAC. With two or three games left for most teams, only St. Thomas and Concordia-Moorhead have secured playoff spots. As many as six teams (Augsburg, Carleton, Gustavus, St. John’s, Bethel and St. Olaf) are fighting for the other four spots.

The Tommies travel to Collegeville Saturday to face the Johnnies (10-12, 9-8), who at one point won seven straight MIAC games. St. John’s is currently one of the teams battling for a playoff spot with games left against St. Mary’s and St. Olaf after Saturday. St. Thomas also hosts St. Olaf in its regular season finale on Wednesday.

When St. Thomas and St. John’s met on Jan. 12 in St. Paul, the Tommies raced out to a 50-22 halftime lead on the way to a 94-63 victory. Expect a much closer game this time around with the Johnnies’s playoff hopes hanging in the balance.

Usually by the final week, the playoff teams are solidified and it’s the seeding they’re jockeying for. This year it’s a different animal, and it makes for a fun atmosphere at games with more on the line.

“You’ll have teams fighting for the sixth spot and there can be a lot of movement anywhere from three to eight,” Tauer said. “The conference has been balanced all year. There’s just not many easy nights, that’s for sure.”

Tauer said he expects an electric atmosphere at St. John’s Saturday. It’s a 3 p.m. tip-off between a pair of rivals. It’s also an alumni weekend on a college campus and the Johnnies need a win to stay alive in the playoff chase.

“From what I gather it will be pretty crazy. It’s a typical rivalry game and both teams are playing for a lot,” Tauer said. “We’ll have to be ready for St. John’s to give us their best game, and we’re excited for that opportunity.”

St. Thomas has the advantage of home court throughout the MIAC Playoffs, which for them will start Friday, Feb. 22 against the lowest remaining seed. After they host St. Olaf next Wednesday, the Tommies will have eight days off before their first playoff game as they wait to see who they’ll host in the semifinals.

Winning down the stretch also assures them of a top region ranking and home court in the early stages of the NCAA Division III Tournament.

“Having home court will be a benefit, and we’ll get 8 days off so that should give us a chance to fine tune some things and get healthy,” Tauer said. “But we have to stay crisp and fresh.”